I’m freshly returned from “Collaboration and Innovation Across the Food System,” the joint annual meeting and conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, held last week on the gorgeous campus of the University of Vermont. Since it was my third year attending this conference, I noticed how my conference experience has evolved and thought I’d share some tips for ensuring the most satisfying, productive, and engaging conference experience as a graduate student.
Before the Conference
1. Study the program. Depending on the conference, there can be dozens upon dozens of panels to choose from. If you scramble to choose what session to attend the day of (or just follow your friends from session to session), you won’t have the best experience. Choose panels based upon presenters you’d like to meet, topics that align with you own research interests, or topics that fill in gaps in your own knowledge. If you have time, google folks beforehand so you can make the most informed panel selections possible.
2. Prep your presentation. If you’re presenting, make sure you are prepared. If you aren’t on a pre-organized panel with folks you know well, email your fellow presenters to introduce yourself, share the content of your talk, organize your presentation order, and set your time allotments. Practice your presentation (more than once!) to ensure that you stick to your allotted time, which is pretty much always less time than you’d like. In most cases, visuals never hurt, so standbys like PowerPoint presentations can complement and supplement your paper. I find it helpful to include a running footer at the bottom of each slide with my name and contact information. People may come into sessions late, so if they miss your introduction, they can still know who you are.
3. Pre-network. Connect before the conference with people who you want to make sure you meet for the first time, talk to, or catch up with. Depending upon how you know and have communicated with each person beforehand, you may seek them out with an informal tweet or direct message (“I’m so glad you’ll be at x conference and look forward to meeting you/catching up!”) or a more formal email.
4. Pack your business cards. We may live in a digital age, but a business card is still one of the greatest networking tools available. Whether you choose a custom design or something simple with your institution’s logo, make sure to include your name, credentials, department, and institution, as well as the many ways folks can get in touch with you: phone, email, Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc. You can print on the back of cards too, which can be a good place to list the fields of your research, for example: “food studies, gender studies, public health, and 20th century American history.”
5. Choose your outfits. Even if you’re not a fashionista, thoughtfully select your conference attire, adhering to the formality of the specific conference. No matter what, you’ll feel more confident presenting and networking if you know your clothes fit, are clean, and make you look as great as your ideas are. If fashion is not your forte, ask the advice of someone whose style you admire.
During the Conference
6. Engage with content. Just like when you attend classes, lectures, or seminars, don’t just sit and listen. Take handwritten notes or live tweet each presentation’s main ideas or interesting findings. Live tweeting conferences is also a service to the broader community, as it makes the conference content available to anyone unable to attend the event in person, which could lead to great online connections for you as well.
7. Connect with presenters. For any presenter who you haven’t formally scheduled time to meet, find other ways to connect. Ask questions during the Q&A and/or speak with presenters after their session. If you’re shy (we’ve all been there), send the presenter an email, tweet, or direct message instead.
8. Rock your presentation. If you’re presenting, here’s where your preparation hours pay off. Connect with your fellow presenters. Speak confidently and clearly. Make as much eye contact as possible, even if you’re reading your paper. Welcome questions from the audience. Answer them succinctly and directly. If possible, follow up with the people who asked you questions after the talk to continue the conversation.
9. Shop for projects. As you meet with other scholars, ask about their current projects. Everyone loves the opportunity to talk about their own work – and who knows! There could be an opportunity for you to collaborate or contribute.
10. Read name tags. Pay attention to who folks are: in the audience, sitting next to you at lunch, or standing in the hall. If you’ve read a person’s book or paper, but have never met them before, it’s easy to start a conversation just by saying that you’ve read their work, sharing how and why you enjoyed it and found it meaningful to your own research.
11. Network old school style. To be honest, events created to promote networking, like mixers, make me feel like a door-to-door salesman and I get all awkward and Willy Loman all over myself. If this is you too, set small achievable goals, like, “I will make two meaningful connections at this event,” meaning you have a conversation or exchange business cards with just two people. After you get started, you might gain some momentum and meet many more people.
12. Don’t skip out. While conferences can be exhausting and everyone gets to a point when they want to (or start to) ditch sessions and events, the more sessions, workshops, field trips, ceremonies, and meals you attend, the more opportunities for meeting people. It is okay to quietly skip around though. If you want to see the first talk in one session and the last in another, seat yourself near an inconspicuous exit so you can head out without disturbing anyone.
13. Make new friends. Conferences are a great opportunity to meet well-established scholars in your field, but they’re also the perfect place to make new friends with students from across the country whose hearts beat as feverishly for their research as yours does. Try to branch out from your current group of friends and seek out new, fun, likeminded colleagues.
14. Rest up (and responsibly caffeinate). Conferences are essentially sitting and listening for the majority of the day, which can be exhausting both mentally and physically. If you’re dozing off during a session, you’re missing the action. Try to get enough rest to be alert and engaged throughout the conference.
After the Conference
15. Post-network. For any business card you secured or meeting/chat you had, send a follow up communication, whether by email or social media to keep the relationship growing.
16. Don’t be a missed connection. If there was someone you wish you had met or spoken to at the conference, but somehow didn’t, it’s not too late! In the days immediately following the conference, reach out to those folks. Tell them how much you enjoyed their presentation, loved their book, or regretted that you weren’t able to meet in person. See if there might be opportunities for you to meet on their home turf or on yours if they’re traveling near you for another conference or event.
17. Plan for next year. It’s never too early to start planning for next year’s conference. While it might be too early to approach presenters you don’t know well, make notes of people who do work that complements your own and brainstorm potential panel topics so that when next year’s proposal deadline comes around, you’re not scrambling.
What are your favorite tips for having a great conference experience? Please share them in the comments!